by Victoria Fritz
"Buoi chieu khong mua," my doorman told me as I stepped out of my apartment. It means, this afternoon it will not rain. My doorman is a better weather forecaster than Yahoo.
My smartphone forecast rain all afternoon. But when I poked my head out the door, it was dry. So I dressed up to bike to the grocery store. As a guarantee, I asked the doorman. And he said, no rain. So I confidently strode out on my rickety old city bike. My doorman is never wrong.
Early on, I learned a few basic phrases, like "nuoc" (water), "Bao nhieu tien?" (how much?), "Cam on" (thank you). In the winter, it became imperative to be able to say, "rat lanh" (very cold) to the weathered taxi driver who likes to race through Ha Noi with his windows wide open.
Because I am Asian, locals always make the mistake of speaking to me in Vietnamese, especially in stores and restaurants. "Sorry, I don't speak Vietnamese," I say with a friendly smile. "Nguoi Philippine (or whatever your nationality is)," comes in handy at these times. "Oh you look Vietnamese!" is always the emphatic reply. Later on I realised this was an advantage. I stopped correcting shop owners and go straight to "Bao nhieu tien?", to get a better price.
Add "Dat qua" (so expensive) to your survival vocabulary and your all set.
Whenever I step out the door, the doorman always gives me a puzzled look, wondering if he will release my bike from its collective chain and the company of my neighbours' bikes, or call a taxi. Once I say, "Di xe dap," he carries my bike down the few steps to the curb. When I say "Di bo," he repeats what I said, as if to a child learning how to talk, and smiles as he watches me go on foot.
One morning, my housekeeper, Oanh, started her day by telling me with a look of alarm, "hom qua" and some other Vietnamese words, while pointing to the stove. With my tiny vocabulary, I knew that "hoa qua" means "fruit". "Fruit?", I asked her, wondering what type of fruit she wanted me to cook. "No!" She was getting impatient. So I went to Google translate, and found out that "hom qua" means "yesterday". Oh my gosh! She was telling me that yesterday, she found our stove's right burner left on when she came in. The gas leaking for an hour! A near disaster. I never told my husband. This is strictly between me and Oanh, whose command of English assures just that. All's well.
Since eating is inevitable, it is important to learn the phrase "rat ngon" (very delicious). My friend Janice had her housekeeper, Phuong, make fresh spring rolls for me. Such a delicate flavour! None of the unwelcome intensity in the sauce. "You must tell her," Janice said. I turned to Phuong and said, "Rat ngon, cam on chi," and she beamed. Then it was my turn to boast. I took out a shift dress, which I myself made at a sewing class, and told her, "Em lam".
I made (this). "Oooh" she was properly impressed. It turned out to be a double feat for me: sewing a dress for the first time in my life, and being able to say it in Tieng Viet [Vietnamese language].
In my comings and goings, I acquired the phrase "lam on cho". "Lam on" means please, and "cho" means wait. I made it a point to add this to my list when I needed to make several quick stops with the same taxi.
Say it isn't so
The hardest part about learning Vietnamese is the pronunciation, which puts the language up there with calculus and climbing Mt Everest in level of difficulty. There are seven ways to pronounce the word "cau", one of which is likely to get you into trouble.
For the longest time, I thought my housekeeper's name was Kwang. At least that is how it sounded when she told me. After one year, I asked the property manager for the correct spelling, and it turned out to be Oanh.
"Cho" pronounced a certain way means market. With a slight variation, it means wait. "Chua" with a wide mouth and steady tone refers to yoghurt, but with puckered lips and a downward tone, it means pagoda.
On the road, keep in mind that "tr" is pronounced "ch". So the street Tran Phu is pronounced "Chan Fu".
With all its drawbacks and challenges, learning basic Vietnamese is a key step in settling in. I've joined a Vietnamese conversation group where the longest staying expat, Si, helps us with basics like how to ask questions, days of the week, etc. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to be joined by a true-blue Vietnamese, who corrects our pronunciation and word choice.
Among my friends, Janice chats regularly with her neighbours, shopkeepers and street hawkers, who treat her like the light-haired local. Barbara can talk to her housekeeper about many things beyond the household chores. And I feel much safer and more comfortable at home being able to engage in small talk and get updates from my housekeeper and doorman.
"Khong mua?" (rain?), I asked the doorman this afternoon, pronouncing the last word with a wide mouth. "Huh?" he looked at me, puzzled. I closed my mouth a little, "Mua?" Still not understanding, he started shaking his head. Finally I said it with a normal mouth, "Mua?" His face lit up. "Ah! Khong mua," he said twice while shaking his head again, more vigorously this time.
I may not get there the first time, or the second time, but I get there all the same. And that is all that matters. — VNS